A Family of Dreamers
Snapshot: How a Wisconsin Family of Seven Is Revolutionizing the Hospitality Industry
Wisconsin Dells, Wis. – Like any good story, there’s so much more than meets the eye at Kalahari Resorts & Conventions. In 17 short years, owner Todd Nelson, with the help of his family — high-school-sweetheart wife Shari and their five children, Todd Jr., Travis, Natasha, and twin daughters Alissa and Ashley — has grown his business from a pizza pub in Wisconsin Dells to several sprawling properties that received the title of World’s Coolest Indoor Waterparks by Conde Nast Traveler in 2014.
“Kalahari is a result of hard work and love and represents my family’s dream come to life,” said Todd Nelson, owner, Kalahari Resorts & Conventions. “We aren’t content sitting on the sidelines but understand that hard work guided by family principles is the key differentiator that has allowed us to partake on this whirlwind journey. It doesn’t get lost on us how lucky we are — sometimes we have to pinch ourselves.”
In 2015, Kalahari Resorts & Conventions opened its Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania, property and in 2017 completed Phase II of the property construction making this location home to America’s Largest Indoor Waterpark – with a true 220,000 sq.ft. of attraction space. Phase III of the northeastern property and an expansion of the Wisconsin Dells property will double the size of both convention centers and take place in 2019. In 2020, the Nelsons will open their fourth U.S. location in Round Rock, Texas.
Meet the Nelsons: The Family Behind the Resorts
Owners, Todd and Shari Nelson
As the owners of Kalahari Resorts & Conventions, Todd and Shari Nelson have been the driving force behind the development, creation and expansion of the brand since its inception in 2000. Todd and Shari met in drivers’ education class and have been together ever since. Entrepreneurs at heart, Todd and Shari started creating business ventures together right out of high school. From a saloon to a pizza place, Todd and Shari worked hard to ensure success in both business and family – they have five children and 13 grandchildren.
“The greatest accomplishment in my life is being able to work with my family. I couldn’t be prouder of my kids. Seeing them grow and learn, not only as people but also as leaders, has been truly exciting. That includes our extended family of awesome management leaders and associates who helped build this dream and will be crucial to any future success.”
Todd Nelson is defined as a leader in the waterpark industry’s consistent evolution and growth due to a myriad of accomplishments and a brand synonymous with innovation. Today, Nelson continues to serve as the brand’s visionary, overseeing the expansion and inventiveness of Kalahari Resorts & Conventions. He has been honored with numerous industry awards and profiled in many respected media outlets, including BusinessWeek, USA Today, NBC’s “The Today Show,” ABC’s “Good Morning America” and CNBC’s “Mike on the Money.”
The Nelsons are dedicated to philanthropic giving and corporate responsibility. Under Nelson’s leadership, Kalahari has worked closely with nonprofit organizations that serve local communities. Kalahari Resorts & Conventions serves as the host of annual fundraising events, such as the United Way Duck Derby, a toy duck race to benefit United Way, Golf for a Song, an annual charity golf tournament at Kalahari Resorts & Conventions’ Trappers Turn Golf Club to raise funds for Wisconsin Dells High School’s marching band and music programs, and the annual Andy North Classic at Trappers Turn Golf Club to raise funds for the University of Wisconsin Paul P. Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Center. In addition, Kalahari Field, a new synthetic sports field at Huron High School in Ohio, opened thanks to contributions of $500,000 in cash, in-kind donations and fundraising events donated by Kalahari. Kalahari also supports organizations, including Make-A-Wish Foundation, American Cancer Society and Multiple Sclerosis Society, through a myriad of ongoing philanthropic activities.
Todd Nelson, Jr.
Todd Nelson Jr. is the eldest son of Todd Nelson and an owning member of Kalahari Resorts & Conventions. He serves as Operations Director for all properties and cultivates cross-functional relationships between departments to ensure a frictionless guest experience from check-in to check-out. He and his wife, Kimberley, are parents to sons Todd Nelson III and Fletcher and and twins Amelia and Paisley. When he’s not working, Nelson is dedicated to being a wonderful father and husband and enjoys giving back to his community.
Travis Nelson is an owning member of Kalahari Resorts and Conventions. Todd and Shari’s second son, Travis has held nearly every position and worked every job at Kalahari locations before settling into the role of Financial Analyst. A graduate from the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, Travis holds a degree in finance. Based in Wisconsin, Travis and his wife, Megan, are parents to son Lyle and two golden retrievers, Petty and Trapp. Nelson enjoys engaging in charity work and is an avid fan of all Wisconsin sports.
Natasha Lucke (nee Nelson) is an owning member of Kalahari Resorts & Conventions and serves as the company’s Interior Designer for all properties. On the family trips to Africa, Natasha finds inspiration in the architecture, colors, art and culture to materialize in the resorts for an authentic African feel. She most recently was responsible for conceptual and executional oversight of all design elements for Kalahari’s property in Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania. Lucke is a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago where she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a specialization in interior design.Lucke and her husband Corey are parents to Cecelia, Sawyer and Graham.
Alissa Gander (nee Nelson) is an owning member of Kalahari Resorts & Conventions and serves as the company’s corporate retailer buyer for all properties. This includes purchasing all items for outlets – including everyday items, toys and clothing. Most recently, she has focused on expanding the retail offerings to include authentically African retail items for purchase in shops. These items support the artisan communities in which they are made. Gander graduated from Edgewood College with a degree in business management. Gander and her husband Bob are parents to Ace and Nelson.
Ashley Nelson is an owning member of Kalahari Resorts and Conventions and brings her hospitality skills to the company’s corporate catering efforts including oversight for menu planning, event coordination and staffing execution. Nelson holds a degree in communications from University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. Nelson and her husband Caleb Turzinski are parents to Caleb and Sullivan.
Partnerships to be Proud of:
- Kalahari partners with Clean the World – the largest global recycler of hotel amenities and has diverted hundreds of thousands of soaps, shampoos, conditioners, lotions and gels from landfills. These items have been sterilized and recycled and distributed to people all over the world – totaling: 43,000+ pounds of waste collected, 141,000+ soap bars and 33,000+ hygiene kits distributed and 12,500+ pounds of plastic recycled.
- Mandela Poster Project– in 2016, Kalahari Resorts and Conventions worked with the Mandela Collective to bring the famed “Mandela Poster Project” to US soil for the first time. The event held in Brooklyn, NY welcomed members of the collective, as well as artists to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s legacy. The company continues the support of the project – most recently financing the “Be Like Madiba” journal project that distributes books of the collection to children in Africa.
- Project SEARCH participant: One-year transition program that provides training and education leading to competitive employment for individuals with disabilities. The program occurs on-site at a business which has the commitment to support people with disabilities in the work place. The program assists young adults with disabilities in making a successful transition from school to working to living a productive adult life.
- Nelson Family Foundation– The foundation is envisioned as an extension of the Nelson family and is dedicated to creating opportunities to improve the lives of individuals in the communities they’re a part of.